Earlier this week, Football Outsiders released their annual Almanac for 2021, and I highly recommend picking it up. It’s a great resource when prepping for fantasy drafts (the rookie projections, and baseball-style “Top 25 Prospects” are invaluable, and have won me leagues before), but my favorite part is the breakdown of each team’s various offense and defensive tendencies from the previous year.
Football Outsiders will tell you how much a team used play-action, how often they lined up in 11 or 12 personnel, how often they used pre-snap motion, and even more esoteric stats like how often they ran the ball on 2nd and long and how effective they were in doing so.
Analytics are the most fun when they tell you something unexpected, and indeed, the Packers were one of only three teams to post a positive DVOA on 2nd-and-long runs, going against analytic orthodoxy to great effect. But sometimes the best revelations just confirm what you thought.
If you’re like me, you watched the Packers play in 2020 and had the following thoughts, just based on the eye test:
- This secondary actually looks pretty good! Except for Kevin King.
- Man, the pass rush has really fallen off from 2019. If they had the same level of pressure combined with this secondary, they might be outstanding!
The eye test isn’t always right, and the most useful thing about having numbers is checking our observations to make sure we haven’t been fooled by recency bias, randomness, or just plain old bad luck. But in this case, the eye test is absolutely dead-on. Per the Almanac, Za’Darius Smith fell from 66 hurries in 2019 to just 30 in 2020. Preston Smith fell from 35 hurries in 2019 to just 11 in 2020. Overall, the defense went from a 34.8% adjusted sack rate in 2019, which ranked 4th, to a 22.8% adjusted sack rate, which ranked 22nd.
The success of the 2021 team, outside of Aaron Rodgers obviously, will largely be based on what happens to the Smiths and the ASR number. If they can bounce back to a top ten pass rush based on some regression and the ascendance of Rashan Gary, they should be Super Bowl favorites in the NFC, but if they continue on as bottom-feeders, their improved secondary won’t matter much.
About that secondary. We know Jaire Alexander was phenomenal last season, and he ranked 3rd in the NFL in success rate. Adrian Amos was also outstanding, excelling in run defense and ranking a respectable 20th in success rate while also putting up 9 passes defended. Most importantly, he was a great complement to Darnell Savage, who did struggle with success rate due to a risky approach in coverage, but also produced positive value with 12 pass defenses and four picks. Amos’ solid play in the back allowed for that gambling to be palatable. Even Chandon Sullivan managed to put up a positive season as the best run defender in the secondary, and had a 56% coverage success rate, ranking 18th.
But then we have the absolute disaster that was Kevin King. King obviously sticks out as the guy who got roasted by Scotty Miller in the NFC Championship game, but his flaws were obvious well in advance of that. Leg injuries have largely robbed him of the speed and agility he had coming out of college, and as a big corner with no wiggle who can’t hit, he’s just one giant Achilles Heel. The second-worst run defender in the secondary was Darnell Savage, who had a Stop Percentage of 33%, ranking 41st in the league. King’s was just 23%, which ranked 71st. Against the pass, Darnell Savage had the 2nd-worst success rate in the secondary at 48%, ranking 42nd. King’s 44% success rate ranked 64th. And unlike Savage, King made absolutely no splash plays, with no interceptions and only 5 PDs, lowest among the starters.
Plenty of people thought that both King and Smith were unlikely to be back this year, and with good reason. You can make a case that they are the primary reasons the Packers failed to make a Super Bowl, and there were plenty of free agents out there available at lower cost. Bashaud Breeland is unquestionably better than King, and his cap hit to the Vikings will be about one million dollars less than King’s will be for Green Bay.
The Packers have Rashan Gary to push Preston Smith and they drafted Eric Stokes out of Georgia to replace King, but the Packers also love familiarity and don’t always move off of disappointing players quickly enough. It’s possible Smith has a bounce-back season in him, and the team does, at least, seem to like Gary should things continue to trend south on the pass rush. However, Stokes is a bigger question mark as rookie corners often take some time to develop. If Kevin King gets major snaps again this year, it’s an absolute organizational failure, and a costly one.